Islanders Threatened By Rising Seas Take Australian Government To Court In World First

Tired of being flooded by sea level rise, inhabitants of the Torres Strait Islands are suing the Australian government at the United Nations. Sophie Marjanac 

Eight residents of four Torres Strait Islands are making a world-first case against their own government at the United Nations (UN) for breaching their human rights. A win will not be legally enforceable, but it could draw further attention to the government's failure to act.

The Torres Strait Islands, between Australia and New Guinea, support a population of 4,500 people. Although there are more than 200 islands in the strait, most are too small to support a permanent population. The same could soon be true of some of the 14 that are inhabited today, many of which have no high ground. Flooding last year was the worst locals could remember, owing to a combination of the supermoon coinciding with the monsoon, and climate change-induced sea level rise.

When such events occur on independent nations like the Maldives or Tuvalu, there is little people can do besides making noise at intergovernmental forums or performing stunts for publicity. However, Torres Strait Islanders are Australian citizens, and they're using that fact to take a case to the UN Human Rights Committee.

The case is being supported by ClientEarth, a charity established to take legal cases on behalf of the environment.

The suit alleges the Australian government has failed to take sufficient action to prevent climate change while falling short of its duty to protect the islanders from the consequences. It seeks an end to Australia's thermal coal exports, a goal of 65 percent emissions reduction by 2030, and a relatively modest infrastructure spend to protect against rising waters.

“We’re currently seeing the effects of climate change on our islands daily, with rising seas, tidal surges, coastal erosion and inundation of our communities. We are seeing this effect on our land and on the social and emotional wellbeing of our communities who practice culture and traditions,” complainant Kabay Tumu said in a statement.

The case could take years, and the legal aspects will no doubt be heavily debated, but the plaintiffs will have plenty of embarrassing facts to present.

Australia is the second highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, and its policies are inadequate for the 26-28 percent reduction (well below comparable nations) it has agreed to. Furthermore, as the world's largest exporter of thermal coal, and seeking to gain the same status for gas, Australia contributes enormously to other nations' emissions. Meanwhile, most of the inhabited islands have been given no flood protection, despite the proven benefits.

Small as the Islander population is, they have had a big impact through litigation before. In 1992 Australia's high court recognized native title for Australia's indigenous people for the first time based on a case taken by Islander Eddie Mabo.

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